Returning to work after parental leave

By Alice Cheshire.

I’ve now been back at work for 3 weeks after a year of maternity leave and it’s fair to say it’s been an emotional shock to the system, bringing up lots of conflicting feelings.

I’ve been excited to use my brain in a different way again and have a bit more control of a predictable routine in my day. I’ve also been looking forward to having the social interaction and collaboration which being home alone with a baby doesn’t often bring – as advanced as I would like to think my daughter is, there is only so much structured debate she can really bring to the table. 

While I’ve been incredibly lucky to come back to such a supportive team, I’ve still had some really low moments and a lot of self-doubt: about whether I can still perform in the way I used to, if my brain will ever get back to where it was, if I can really juggle a full workload and all the admin and logistics, let alone mental space, that come with a baby, and the biggest question of all: if I’m doing the right thing for my family. 

I don’t think I’ll ever be 100% confident that I’m doing the right thing, and I know many parents will relate to that ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation with working, but I wanted to share my reflections on the process and what I think returning parents, managers and workplaces can do to at least make the transition easier.  

Obviously, everyone’s experience of returning to work after parental leave will be different, just as every organisation will handle it slightly differently. But there are some concepts that both parents and team leaders may find useful when dealing with parents returning to work after time away.

How to manage returning to work after parental leave:

Be kind to yourself

It’s a phrase that is constantly used in the wellbeing space but for good reason: returning to work after parental leave can be difficult.

It’s overwhelming. You are now a full-time parent on top of your paid role and that constant parent brain is hard to tune out, no matter how good a childcare set up you have. Give yourself a bit of grace, it’s going to take a while to get back to your pre-parental leave performance levels and figure out who you are at work now as a parent.

Prepare for illness, and don’t stress about it when it happens

It’s likely your child will be in some sort of shared childcare set up, like a nursery or child minder, and if so, they are going to come home ill very frequently, which means you will also be ill very frequently.

The most important thing is to not stress when this happens. Everyone gets ill from time to time, and often trying to push through and work when we should be resting just means the illness drags on and we feel worse for longer.

Be open with how you are finding things, and ask for help where you can

Whether at home or at work, building in as much of a support network as possible will make finding your new normal that much easier. It can be an intensely emotional time, and sharing that experience can help you feel heard, process it better, and feel your authentic self at work. It’s also important for returning parents to have an open dialogue with managers about their workload, scheduling needs and any other considerations you might have.

How to make it easy for team members returning from parental leave:

Allow flexible working

For me, having such a supportive manager and teammates made all the difference in returning. Having flexibility and control of my schedule meant I wasn’t stressed about nursery drop-offs or pick-ups, and starting back on three days a week has meant I haven’t felt abruptly separated from my daughter after a year of being together 24/7.

This can help staff feel supported by work, and allows them the freedom and flexibility to navigate any challenges that may come up, instead of dealing with them and all the stress that trying to work a traditional 9-5 would bring with it on top of parenting issues.

Understand that this is a transitional period

I’m now starting to feel like I’m finding my feet at work again, but I definitely underestimated just how rusty I would feel. I think I will be playing catch up for a couple of months really and so having such a great team around me has meant I can be open about this, and we can work it out together.

Don’t expect your team members will return and pick things up as if they were never away. It can take a long time to get back into the swing of things. It’s often helpful to make allowances for staff returning to work, but also to let them know they have your full support and confidence.

Communicate openly and clearly

Having regular, clear communication around expectations of the role as well as checking in frequently can be the difference between somebody feeling like they should move on to a new opportunity, or feeling energised to be back at work.

Read over the business’ policies. Different workplaces have different levels of support built in for the parents in their teams, and knowing what is available to support your team member means you are prepared for all eventualities, whether it is them wanting a reduction in hours or to use some flexible work benefits in a certain way, you’ll feel more confident in supporting them if you’ve done a bit of research in advance. 

Whether you’re returning to work, or helping a team member back from parental leave, protecting mental health at work doesn’t have to be difficult. Being open, honest, and supportive is the best way to handle any issue, and allows everyone to feel more relaxed at work.

Read more about helping staff return to the workplace, or learn more about how to protect mental health at work.

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Posted on: 10th May 2023